Commentary | 14 September 2019

Are Trumpians or Boltonians in charge?

The US alliance is the great totem of Australia's foreign policy, before which our major parties kneel. But they should look up once in a while, lest the tectonic plates shift again and the totem topples.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review

The US alliance is the great totem of Australia's foreign policy, before which our major parties kneel. But they should look up once in a while, lest the tectonic plates shift again and the totem topples.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison steps off his plane in Washington next week, he will almost be able to feel the tectonic plates of global affairs shifting beneath his feet.

The departure of National Security Adviser John Bolton this week will still be triggering aftershocks. Presidential advisers come and go, but Bolton represents something larger about America and the kind of power it is becoming.

Bolton is on the bellicose and belligerent fringe of the American foreign policy establishment.

This establishment believes that America is, to quote former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the "indispensable nation", with interests in every corner of the globe that must be protected by a global military presence, global alliance network and frequent use of force.

President Donald Trump’s election was a repudiation of that establishment, which had failed so comprehensively when it launched disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

That point was recently driven home when we learned Trump was planning peace talks with the Taliban at Camp David. Trump cancelled the talks, but he needs a face-saving way out of Afghanistan, so it is probably only a temporary hold-up in what will be a humiliating close to the 18-year conflict that's become America's longest war.

Bolton not only opposed these talks, he was also against Trump’s North Korea negotiations and wanted a far more confrontational policy towards Iran. In Bolton’s world, every threat to US interests, no matter how distant or weak, needs to be snuffed out before it can grow. This is a world of almost limitless American resources and unquestioned political resolve.

Whatever else we might say about Trump, he at least does not suffer from Bolton’s delusions. This is not to say that Bolton is a "hawk" and Trump a "dove".

It was Trump, after all, who threatened North Korea with wholesale destruction, and who at last Thursday’s September 11 commemoration, threatened terrorists with "power the likes of which the US has never used before".

It is just that Trump defines America’s interests more narrowly around the economy and American soil – his bloodcurdling threat to terrorists applied only ‘if they come back to our country’. One of the few things Trump has been consistent about throughout his public life is that he thinks America’s global commitments are a fraud, a way for feckless and devious allies to milk the American taxpayer.

The real difference between Trump and Bolton, then, is that the President sees America as a normal nation. A large one, to be sure, with influence in global affairs to match. But for Trump, America does not play a providential role in world affairs; it is not an indispensable power with global responsibilities.

The difficulty for Scott Morrison is to decide which of these two world views - Trumpian versus Boltonian – is in the ascendancy in Washington. And perhaps more importantly, he must ask which will survive after the President moves on, whether after one term or two.

Given that Bolton has just departed, the obvious conclusion is that Trump’s view is winning. But if that’s true, why was Bolton appointed in the first place? The answer is that there are so few Trumpians in the Washington foreign-policy establishment that the President has found it impossible to staff his administration with people who share his world view.

In turn, that suggests Trumpism won’t outlast Trump, and that the Washington establishment will be back in the saddle when he departs.

Perhaps, but even if the establishment wants to return America to its pre-eminent place in world affairs, the costs of doing so are rising dramatically, mainly because China, which wants to surpass the US as Asia’s leading power, is so big and so rich.

Yet neither of our major parties has really internalised the idea that America might become more "normal", and that such a nation will feel no special responsibility to maintain its leadership in Asia. Scott Morrison is part of a bipartisan party-political establishment that can’t imagine a future for Australia that does not involve an ever closer alliance between Australia and the United States.

However, our political leaders do understand that Australia’s economic relationship with China, and Beijing’s ambitions for regional leadership, makes our alliance with the US increasingly difficult to sustain, let alone grow.

Their solution, so far, has been to avoid this tension. Critics of Morrison’s decision to join the Persian Gulf operation have legitimate concerns about Australia joining another American military adventure in the Middle East.

But it’s a move that actually reflects the fragility of the alliance. Australia is pledging its loyalty to its great ally, but only in a way that avoids upsetting China. We still won’t conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, and we certainly won’t host US missiles that could hit mainland China, a possibility floated at the recent AUSMIN talks.

The alliance is the great totem of Australian foreign policy, before which both our major parties kneel. But they should look up once in a while, lest the tectonic plates shift again and the totem topples.